26 October 2007

Gambling in The Mountain State - Updated

In the week since two of West Virginia's four racetracks began offering casino table games:

* The parent company of a third track reported a sharp fall in earnings for the recently completed third quarter. Penn National Gaming, owner of Charles Town Races & Slots, said it earned $108 million less than it had during that time last year, The Associated Press reports.

Much of the difference appears to stem from the 2006 sale of one of its other tracks, however. Charles Town is the only West Virginia track ineligible for table games, as Jefferson County voters rejected them.

* Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has signed legislation "banning skilled gambling machines that offer cash payouts or prizes as payouts worth more than $10," The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports (aided by AP dispatches).

"According to the Associated Press, the slot-like gambling machines spread across the state because of a legal loophole," the article said. "Strickland’s law strengthened the definition of the 'skill-based machines, even those at Chuck E. Cheese. The bill contained an emergency clause' that made the law effective as soon as the governor signed it Thursday."

Evoking the days when West Virginia was awash with video poker "grey" machines that routinely (and illegally) paid out, The Intelligencer spoke to the owner of two Ohio parlors who had 59 machines at his locations.

MetroNews also reports on the new Ohio law.

Update: Perhaps feeling left out, Maryland enters the fray with legislation to legalize slot machines, proposed by its governor for a special session that begins Monday. AP has details.

They Voted For You: SCHIP II

West Virginia's U.S. House members all helped pass a new version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill Thursday - though it still lacks the veto-proof majority that doomed the previous version.

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd voted with the majority in the 265-142 passage of the legislation.

As The Associated Press reports, the bill moves to the Senate.

Democrats argue they have "systematically addressed earlier complaints that the bill failed to place a priority on low-income children, did not effectively bar illegal immigrants from qualifying for benefits and was overly generous to adults," AP reports.

"Even so, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland raised the possibility that additional changes were possible before the bill would be sent to the White House."

AP also offers audio and video on the subject.

Tackling Obesity in The Mountain State

The Manchin administration has enlisted the state's largest provider of Medicaid coverage to help West Virginia's doctors in the fight against rampant obesity.

As The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports, state figures show that "more than 30 percent of adults in West Virginia are obese, the third-highest percentage in the country. It ranked second nationwide for its percentage of obese children, according to one recent study, Breen observes.

UniCare "will offer training to doctors and their staffs in obesity prevention and body mass index measurement," starting Oct. 30, Breen reports.

"The state’s Medicaid agency spends about $100 million on obesity-related costs annually," the article said, "while obesity cost the state Public Employees Health Insurance agency $93 million last year, about 18 percent of its budget."

The state's health care system was also the focus of a Thursday conference at The Greenbrier, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

"Community Health Network of West Virginia CEO Dave Campbell said $10 billion a year is spent on health care in the state, but only 3 percent of that is spent on preventative measures," that article said.

“What we have is a dysfunctional system,” Campbell is quoted as saying. “The statistics are staggering. Of the $4 billion a year spent in hospitals, we know that $1 out of every $10 is avoidable. Over $400 million would be avoidable if people had earlier access to prevention and primary care.”

Other bad news on the health care front arrived earlier this week, when The Charleston Gazette reported that in West Virginia, "m
ore than 27 percent of women smoked during their pregnancy last year — the highest rate in the nation."

Rough Crowd for Manchin's Coal Plan

Gov. Joe Manchin is facing a tough sell as he pushes a state energy plan that hinges on " increasing coal production by building plants to turn coal into liquid fuel," The Charleston Gazette reports.

At Thursday's Public Energy Authority hearing, the last of three held to air the topic, "residents repeatedly attacked Manchin’s blueprint," the Gazette reports.

"Only Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, spoke specifically in favor of Manchin’s focus on building coal-to-liquids plants."

A second lobbyist, Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, echoed Raney's praise of Manchin for sticking with the state's fossil fuel industries.

A third, Bryan Brown, "said he was with a new group called West Virginians for Reliable Power," the article said. "Brown urged the energy authority to add language supporting the need for improved energy infrastructure, such as new power transmission lines."

25 October 2007

W.Va. Hosts ARC Conference

During its fall conference in Charleston, the Appalachian Regional Commission released a report Thursday touting multi-fold returns on its investments in water, sewer, telecommunications and economic development projects.

The Associated Press has details from the study and the meeting of the agency assigned to aid the 13-state Appalachian region. Not all the news was good: a separate study estimates Appalachia needs $40 billion to provide basic drinking water and sewage services to all its residents.

West Virginia is no stranger to inadequate, outmoded or overwhelmed wastewater treatment systems, as The State Journal reports this week.

Gov. Joe Manchin is the commission's state co-chairman, and helped preside over the fall conference. Decrying the role neglect has played in the region's water and sewer woes, Manchin cited the $167 million price tag on repairing and restoring the state Capitol Complex.

The Charleston Daily Mail focuses today on one big item on that to-do list: the Oshel B. Craigo parking garage, which needs $3.9 million to remedy the lack of a maintenance plan.

"It's going to cost nearly as much to repair the parking garage at the state Capitol Complex as it did to build it eight years ago," the Daily Mail reports.

Update: Public Broadcasting also has a story on the ARC conference, with audio.

W.Va. Dems Dodge Lawsuit

Massey Energy Co. chief Don Blankenship is withdrawing his defamation lawsuit against the state Democratic Party and its chairman, Nick Casey, The Associated Press reports.

Blankenship sued Aug. 10 over a 2006 election season TV ad, alleging it maliciously misrepresented his comment about the fatal Sago and Aracoma mine accidents.

Though his case "sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, and a public apology from the defendants," he decided to drop it believing he's made his point about the ad, this lawyer told AP.

Blankenship has been a vocal critic of West Virginia's civil justice system, alleging it is plagued by frivilous lawsuits. A board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, his political spending has included backing candidates and groups that echo his views on "tort reform."

Blankenship and/or Massey still have lawsuits pending against Gov. Joe Manchin, the state Supreme Court, and two law firms that defended Massey in contract disputes.

Their defamation lawsuit against The Charleston Gazette and the United Mine Worker Union was dismissed in Virginia, and their appeal refused by that state's Supreme Court. One defendant in that lawsuit, the defunct West Virginia Consumers for Justice, settled out of the case and issued a publicized apology.

They Voted For You: Leslie Southwick

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., voted to confirm Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted against the confirmation, which prevailed 59-38.

Based in New Orleans, the circuit is over the federal district courts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

The Associated Press covered the confirmation vote for Southwick, who faced objections from "Democrats who said he wasn't sensitive enough to the region's history of race relations."

"Southwick's record as a state appeals court judge in Mississippi drew opposition from traditionally left-leaning groups who warned Democrats that his confirmation could mean consequences come Election Day," AP reported. "But supporters of Southwick's nomination said the choice was rightly decided on his qualifications -- not the turbulent history of the 5th Circuit."

24 October 2007

Bonus Quote of the Day

"I just hope they fry for what they did to me."

-- Megan Williams, 20, to The Associated Press about the six Logan County residents accused of holding her captive and brutalizing her for days last month.

Quote of the Day

"Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works — but writers and English teachers do."

-- Award-winning, best-selling author Pat Conroy, in a letter to The Charleston Gazette on the campaign to pull his works from a Nitro High reading list.

Woman At Center of "Logan 6" Case Speaks

Megan Williams, the 20-year-old woman prosecutors say was brutalized for days by a group of Logan County captors, spoke at length of her ordeal to Shaya Tayefe Mohajer of The Associated Press.

"The slight woman with cocoa-colored skin says she was outnumbered by people who just wanted to hurt a black person," Tayefe Mohajer writes.

“They just kept saying, ‘This is what we do to niggers down here’ and ‘You’re never going to see your family ever again,’” Williams told her.

The article also delves into the decision by prosecutors not to pursue hate crime charges in the case. While Williams and her family want such charges filed, "the six could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted of rape and kidnapping charges," the article said.

U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller recently explained to MetroNews the rationale behind the prosecution strategy (audio here).

A group advocating for a hate crime designation, Black Lawyers for Justice, wants to protest on Williams' behalf Nov. 3. But plans for a march through Charleston has hit a snag, Public Broadcasting reports.

Incurring The Wrath of Conrack

The tumult over the selection of two Pat Conroy novels for a Nitro High School Advanced Placement Literature Class has prompted a response from the author.

Conroy sent The Charleston Gazette a 900-word letter to the editor, telling its readers that "I
have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid."

Praising the teachers and students who have rallied around his books, Conroy reserved his ire for the Kanahwa County school board as it weighs yanking them from class reading lists.

"You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread," Conroy wrote. "Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera."

The Gazette has an article on the letter and its role in the ongoing debate.

23 October 2007

Rockefeller Contributions Raise Eyebrows

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has received more than $42,000 from phone company executives that have lobbied him to support "legal immunity for businesses participating in National Security Agency eavesdropping," The New York Times reports.

"The money came primarily from a fund-raiser that Verizon held for Mr. Rockefeller in March in New York and another that AT&T sponsored for him in May in San Antonio," the newspaper said. "Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged last week as the most important supporter of immunity in devising a compromise plan with Senate Republicans and the Bush administration."

Rockefeller's committee endorsed a measure Thursday to "add restrictions on the eavesdropping and extend retroactive immunity to carriers that participated in it. President Bush secretly approved the program after the Sept. 11 attacks," the article said.

A Rockefeller spokeswoman told the Times that "the senator had had numerous meetings with his aides about immunity for a year and came to believe that the carriers needed legal protection to ensure cooperation on national security operations."

“Any suggestion that Senator Rockefeller would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions is patently false,” Wendy Morigi said.

Thanks to Hoppy Kercheval for pointing out the story on MetroNews' Talkline. MetroNews also has a story, and audio from a campaign finance law advocate quoted in the Times' piece.

They Voted For You: Pete Stark

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted to table a resolution that would have censured Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., on Tuesday. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted for the measure.

The resolution focused on Stark's comment in a congressional speech last week that "U.S. troops are being sent to Iraq 'to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement,'" The Associated Press reports.

The resolution was tabled on a 196-173 vote.

Of the House Republicans, 168 voted against scuttling the resolution while 32 cast no vote. Five Democrats voted with them, while eight voted "present."

Public Hearings Begin For 240-Mile Power Line

West Virginia University's Erickson Alumni Center will hold the first of several public hearings on the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, which Allegheny Energy wants to run across north-central West Virginia from Pennsylvania to northern Virginia.

Public Broadcasting has an item on the hearing schedule.

The Charleston Gazette has some background as well on the proposed $1.3 billion, 500-kilovolt-transmission line.

Public Broadcasting also has another piece on the topic of power generation, this one on net metering. West Virginians "who generate their own electricity can now sell the excess to the power company." With audio.

22 October 2007

When Educators Betray The Public Trust

At least one-third of the West Virginia educators whose licenses were revoked or suspended for misconduct between 2001 and 2005 committed some sort of sexual offense, The Associated Press reports.

The AP's Shaya Tayefe Mohajer brought a West Virginia focus to a seven-month investigation during which AP reporters scoured educator disciplinary records to all 50 states and Washington, DC.

"Nationally, allegations of sexual misconduct led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005," AP found. "That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered. There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States."

Tayefe Mohajer found in West Virginia that of 101 educators disciplined, "Twenty-nine of those teachers are known to have engaged in sexual misconduct and 69 percent of the cases resulted in criminal convictions. Another 31 records simply indicate whether the license was suspended or revoked without listing a cause."

A Near-Record Verdict

A Harrison County jury reached a series of verdicts this month totaling nearly $400 million against DuPont in a case targeting its former zinc-smelting plant near the community of Spelter.

The last damage award, as The Associated Press' Vicki Smith reports, topped $196 million and is meant to punish the chemical giant for conduct the jury concluded was "wanton, willful and reckless."

The AP's Smith has offered comprehensive coverage of the multi-phase trial, including earlier damage awards, the verdict ordering 40 years of "medical monitoring" for the plaintiffs, and the reaction by state environmental officials to the case's underlying allegations of harmful exposure to a "massive toxic waste pile."

(The state's record judgment, at least in recent memory, was the $405 million verdict in a Roane County gas royalties dispute.)

More on the 2008 Money Race

The Associated Press breaks down the funds contributed to, and spent by, the presidential candidates in West Virginia.

A review of the candidates' campaign finance reports, including those from the latest filing period, also show that a number of the state's traditional donors have begun to line up behind White House hopefuls.

The AP article also delves in to the U.S. Senate and House races. The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler has some details from some of those reports in his weekend column, among other items of note.